About the Opening Markets Project
Usually at the end of a study there is a paper published in a peer-reviewed journal – and only then does the information become available publicly. This project is a bit outside the norm. Our NC State project team released information as we collected it through a blog, making it available for public and peer consumption and creating an open-source project.
Throughout the process, we posted documents, data, and anecdotes to relay the information that we identified. Since we worked with small farms, our blog entries also included tips and tricks that our participating farms used to produce food that is as safe as possible.
The local food economy is partially fueled by a societal push for a greater connection to where food comes from an increased interest in agriculture and economic sustainability: but is it microbiologically safe?
Buyers of various sizes, from large retailers or food service groups like Wal-Mart or the school lunch program to smaller grocery outlets and neighborhood bistros, have increased their attention on supplier food safety. One of the strategies food buyers have used to protect themselves is to require suppliers to meet certain food safety standards such as good agricultural practices (GAP) certification, or an audit of practices carried out by a third-party (not usually the buyer themselves, but an agency hired to check on a supplier). When a farm has passed an audit or received their USDA GAP certification it has been verified that the farm has demonstrated adherence to guidance suggested by the Food and Drug Administration’s Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables – at least when the verifier was there. Certification or audit doesn’t ensure that a product is risk-free, but many buyers are requiring the steps prior to entering into agreements with a supplier. Certification is often a market entry barrier.
While the discussion about regulating and implementing food safety guidelines on small farms has been heated, there is a lack of data derived from working farms on what the real barriers are: how much time and money would be required, and/or what process or infrastructure changes might be needed to implement safety risk reduction strategies. Knowing more about these behavioral barriers and potential economic impacts can help in the design of better materials, resources and aids for farmers. In partnership with Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, we aimed to create an evidence-based, practical system for small farms who are trying to reduce public health risks and meet market demands for employing GAPs.
We gathered information on costs and barriers from 12 small farms (less than 20 acres, at least 8 commodities) across North Carolina as they went through steps that could lead to USDA GAP certification. These steps include addressing risks and collecting documentation on food safety practices, which are often cited as the biggest issues. Many of our participating farms chose to open up what they are doing in hopes of creating and communicating approaches to food safety that are practical for small farms. Through this project we identified practice, facilities and system barriers to the current GAP certification process as well as the economic barriers that have been alluded to in previous reports.
Our team travelled across the state and conducted biweekly visits to observe on-farm activities and identify risks associated with on-farm processes. During an initial visit, farmers led us through on-farm activities and processes; we talked about some of the potential barriers and collected information on what participants were already doing to reduce risks. Follow-up visits referred farmers to possible solutions and tracked implementation of the risk reduction strategies. Conducting on-site visits to engage producers is something Dr. Ben Chapman has been part of for the past decade in working with producers in Canada and North Carolina. He believes that the best way to gather information on what is practical and what isn’t is to conduct some reality research and spend time with the farmers who are battling with these issues daily.
In preparation for GAP certification, we worked alongside the producer and asked questions about how realistic the guidelines are. We carried out document review to track costs accrued for the purpose of certification, such as the total costs of building a handwashing sink. Data on other resources (both time and money) was collected and included: time required to document; capital investments such as sorting tables or product washing facilities, water testing and fertilizer substitution. Producers created journals (video, audio and text) and documented their own path to food safety risk reduction, specifically discussing any problems they encountered, tips on solutions and discussing issues they dealt with.
All of the data collection instruments and analysis plans were shared on the blog and everything was open, transparent and available for comment.
Carolina Farm Stewardship Association generously funded this project through a grant they received from the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Specialty Crop Block Grant fund.
For more information contact Dr. Ben Chapman, North Carolina State University, firstname.lastname@example.org.